Ethiopia makes strides in vehicle manufacturing, women dot assembly line

A woman works on a truck chassis at a vehicle assembly plant in Bishofti, Ethiopia. The factory has a large number of female employees [Nzau Musau, Standard]
It is a sizzling Saturday midday in Addis Ababa and Africa’s governments are congregating at the African Union headquarters for their annual ritual.

Important delegations - their country’s choice picks in both beauty and brains - are sauntering in and out of the magnificent Chinese-built AU complex, checking one thing or the other ahead of the 30th Ordinary Heads of States meeting the following day.

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is already in town with sagging reading glasses and anvil at hand as he chairs a meeting of African governments who peer-review each other’s progress in socio-political and economic affairs.

While participants are poring over huge reports, often with feeble, diplomatic responses, 45 kilometres South East of the capital, sassy Ethiopian girls are doing their talking in a different way.

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Run the show

At Bishoftu Automotive Engineering Industry, women run the show in design, manufacture and assembly of the commercial and military vehicles that dot Addis and going by the state-owned brand, Metec (Metals and Engineering Corporation).

Bishoftu area was the weekend get-away of Emperor Haile Selassie. It is here that he built a palace named “Fairfield” after his exile home in the City of Bath, England, in late 30s.

Upon entry at the highly guarded industrial plant at the base of straddling hills, I am confronted by an imposing picture, not of Selassie, but strongman Meles Zenawi.

It is the same huge portrait with Amharic illustrations that beckons you when you step further into the facility at the front offices.

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Nothing else prepares you for the revolution taking place inside the stream of factories comprising the industrial park.

On the first stop at the light vehicle production line, it is a total girl affair as the fabled Ethiopian beauties assemble vehicles in seven stops.

With their long hair down - no helmets - they churn out double and single cabin pickups, and station wagons at breakneck speed.

At the frame and axle stop, a plain frame is wheeled and captured by two women who work on it in a matter of minutes, fixing the essentials before pushing it to the next - wheel assembly - where tyres are fixed by yet another pair.

At the power and transmission level, others are waiting and once done, pass it over to the inspection team who go over it before releasing it others in subsequent stations.

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“We have about 3,500 employees working in shifts in this facility; 46 per cent of them women. Our target is to get 50 per cent of women working and training with us,” Captain Michael, the facility orderly who is taking us around, tells us.

“I know you have only seen women thus far but men are around too, engaged in other tasks.”

The plant produces six Metec light cars daily.

Next is the heavy duty truck production unit where the men, with a few women among them, rule. Working in shifts, they produce 16 trucks per day.

We move on to the decker-bus production line, another 80 per cent female affair. At first, it is difficult to comprehend whether the striking “Sheger” branded decker buses parked outside are locally made.

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“We began producing them seven months ago. So far we have delivered 50 double-decker buses. You have probably seen them in town,” Michael says.

The facility also produces tanks and armoured vehicles, power trains, water trucks, fire-fighters, fork-lifts, bicycles and motor cycles. Our handlers walk us quickly past the armour factory but not before we see the tanks parked outside the plant.

I expected to see lots of Chinese running the show at the plant but I did not see a single one. My Ethiopian sources told me the Addis regime exacted the maximum returns from their Chinese counterparts, including transfer of technology.

Yet for all the cars the plant is churning out, the puzzle of ludicrously expensive cars in Addis abounds. Russian LADA taxis of the 70s and 80s still rove the city, which is supposedly Africa’s new flower.

vehicle manufacturingethiopiamanufacturing sector